Input Processing: Implications

On last week’s Tea with BVP, Bill VanPatten discussed what humans do when they listen to and read messages, known as Input Processing (IP), and then elaborated on his work with Processing Instruction (PI). Don’t let that acronym palindrome (PIIP, or IPPI) confuse you! Bill’s Processing Instruction (PI) is an instructional technique used to gently push students into linking form and meaning while processing input, although it’s meaning-based and communicative in nature, not explanation-based like pop-up grammar, etc. Regardless of using Processing Instruction (PI), the language teacher should be aware of what’s going on as students process input. So, what do they do first when they listen to, and read messages?

“Big” Content Words
First, students are “driven to get content words from the input,” as Bill stated. This means that they isolate content words—not declension/verb morphological endings—but words as whole lexical items that get them the maximum amount of meaning (i.e. “talked,” not “talk” + “-ed”). Students are NOT creating rules for the past tense, but instead storing whole words that have a “pastness” to them.

Since students store words as whole lexical items—not morphological ending rules—any clues to “pastness” can help. The savvy language teacher aware of how students process input, then, can include more adverbial tense clues that students have already stored (e.g. herī ībant, ōlim erat, hodiē eō, crās vidēbunt, etc.). Note, however, that students are first driven by “big” content words, so if a message is too long, the tense clues will go unnoticed. Also, this isn’t license to go add adverbs to every sentence! If there’s a tense shift in a narrative, however, a good move would be to include an adverb that your students already know. A Processing Instruction (PI) response to this would be to remove adverbs later on (i.e. ībant, erat, eō, vidēbunt) to give students the opportunity to BEGIN processing the verbs with their endings—not as rules—but as a whole lexical items, although “begin” is the operative word. Acquisition, and noticing, is slow.

So, in Bill’s example of “I went to the store,” with “yesterday” intentionally left out, the statement can become communicative by asking “when did I go to the store?” and then co-creating a story, etc. These are known as structured input activities, designed to “gently push” students to get more from the input than just the “big” content words.

Should structured input activities via PI be used early on? No. Should they be used often and interrupt the flow of communication? No. Bill also warned that simply pointing out the past tense verb ending isn’t PI. That sort of pop-up grammar should only occur as a response to a student question noticing the form, and should only take a few seconds. PI is done DURING comprehension of messages, and is a bit more involved. You can use PI whenever you want, but it probably won’t make much of a difference at the Novice proficiency level, so why bother? If your interest is piqued, however, give it a shot and report back.

First Noun Principle
What would you do if you knew that your students process the first noun they come across (e.g. “Caesarem” in Caesarem canis mordit) as the agent (i.e. one acting, but not necessarily grammatical subject such as with the passive voice)? Would you still drill the accusative case in order to fight this tendency? No, you wouldn’t drill anything like your failed language teacher, because that’s just silly according to Second Language Acquisition (SLA). Instead, the savvy language teacher aware of language-learners’ first noun strategy could respond to this by using word order that avoids the misleading tendency.

That’s right, using “English word order” could be more beneficial for your students, at least until they create enough mental representation of the language in order to begin noticing those case markers (i.e. Caesarem), which we know doesn’t occur within the first few years anyway. So, sticking to what some refer to as “Classically attested Latin,” especially in terms of “proper Latin word order” early on isn’t really doing anyone—ANYONE—a service. We simply MUST acknowledge how students process input, and make that input more comprehensible knowing learner tendencies. We have volumes upon volumes of perfect Latin that most students—and teachers—can’t read. Catullus would be less-thrilled to know that his work actually HAS lasted beyond a single generation if he knew that most people can’t read it because his language were perpetually being taught poorly.

Sentence Order
Bill mentioned that our students will first process the beginning of a sentence, then the end of the sentence, and lastly, the whole middle. This is reason enough to use shorter messages with not much of a “middle” to them, supporting ideas on simplicity and complexity, and even more reason to avoid direct objects, etc. at the beginning of sentences according to the first noun strategy!

Strategies & Techniques
Good comprehension-based teaching methods, like TPRS, use strategies and techniques that “reduce the burden” of processing of input. Bill even said that TPRS et al. can accelerate acquisition because of this! That’s the first I’ve heard of any control over acquisition rates, given internal learner constraints. I don’t think he intended that statement to go too far. It sounds like TPRS et al. can create the ideal environment to set up students for more success than anything else out there before internal learner constraints take over. With that endorsement, I’d say it’s not a bad time to get to a workshop!

Here are some things you can do to help students isolate the “big,” key content words, and process input:

  • Use shorter messages to minimize the middle
  • Point & Pause to allow more processing time
  • Use questioning techniques to emphasize words
  • Include adverbs as clues for morphological markers
  • Avoid using first nouns, that aren’t the agents, at the beginning of messages

5 thoughts on “Input Processing: Implications

  1. Thanks for the summary and comments, Lance.
    RE control over acquisition rates, it seems that the only way that we can [increase] acquisition is by the degree to which our input is comprehensible and compelling. The strategies suggested would increase the comprehensibility. Do you think that there is something in addition to this?

    • No, I don’t think there’s anything else, and it’s great to hear from a researcher that TPRS (and other comprehension-based methods…whatever those are…) maximize comprehensibility and compellingness.

      • This is really big, because Grammar Translation proponents have always said that conscious analysis of language, deciphering, etc. in short, relying on the non-linguistic parts of the brain, is the necessary short-cut given the lack of hours students have for acquisition to take place. BVP is saying that not only is G-T NOT a shortcut, but that IF there is any sort of shortcut, it is through super-efficient delivery of CI that TPRS etc. can do.

  2. Pingback: 4th Class, 1st MovieTalk | Magister P.

  3. Pingback: Pimsleur: How Much Input? | Magister P.

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